Premiers Council 20131115

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil is being criticized for accepting an invitation from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to attend Nelson Mandela's funeral in South Africa. (Mark Blinch/Canadian Press)

Premier Stephen McNeil is coming under fire for his decision to accept an invitation from Prime Minister Stephen Harper to attend the memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela this week.

"I believe it's the role of our national leaders to represent our country at national events. I truly don't understand what the role of the premier of Nova Scotia in this particular event," said Opposition leader Jamie Baillie.

"More importantly, we're in the middle of a house session. This is not just my opinion, it appears, but eight of Canada's other 10 premiers felt that they were needed at home."

According to the provincial Liberals, Harper extended an invitation to all the premiers and territorial leaders to join the Canadian pilgrimage of politicians and dignitaries to pay homage to Mandela.

McNeil and Alberta Premier Alison Redford accepted the invitation, as did Yukon Premier Darrell Pasloski and Northwest Territories Premier Bob McLeod. They touched down in South Africa on Monday.

"We were represented appropriately by not only the current prime minister but two governors general and three past prime ministers. That, for me as a Canadian, is adequate representation," said Baillie.

Parties gave consent

But Liberal house leader Michel Samson defended the trip and accused the Progressive Conservatives of playing politics with their criticism.

Samson said before McNeil accepted the prime minister's invitation, he sent an email to the Tories and the New Democratic Party to get their consent.

"The premier has been invited by the prime minister to join him and other Canadian premiers for the funeral of the late Nelson Mandela in South Africa. The premier would be absent from the legislature for the remainder of the week as a result," reads the email.

Mandela Cda Reaction 20131209

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper waves as he walks to a waiting car upon his arrival in Pretoria, South Africa, on Monday for the funeral of Nelson Mandela. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

"In light of this extraordinary situation, I am requesting that you reach out to your leaders as soon as possible and indicate to me whether they support the premier attending the funeral of the late Nelson Mandela."

Chris d'Entremont, the Progressive Conservative house leader, responded with: "We are fine, this is an extraordinary situation."

A representative of the New Democratic Party indicated by email that interim NDP Leader Maureen MacDonald supported the trip.

"The premier — prior to making a commitment — specifically asked me to reach out and get the consent of leaders of both opposition parties prior to making that commitment," Samson told reporters on Monday.

"For Mr. Baillie to decide this morning that he's having second thoughts and trying to make a political issue of it is most unfortunate."

'It's his decision to make'

Baillie, meanwhile, insisted it's not his job to approve McNeil's schedule and he still disagrees with the premier's decision to go.

"It's his decision to make and I want to make that clear. It's his decision to make," Baillie said.

"He asked if he could go. We said, 'Fine, go.' I think that's the appropriate thing for us to say but that does not take us away from our duty as an opposition party to then question, why is it that he wants to go so badly."

Samson said McNeil's presence at the funeral recognizes the impact Mandela had on the lives of many Nova Scotians and said the premier would not have gone if either opposition leader had objected.

The federal government would be picking up the cost of the travel and lodging while in South Africa, Samson said, and the provincial responsibility covers McNeil's flight to and from Ottawa — where the plane took off on Sunday.

"Certainly in Nova Scotia with the African-Nova Scotian population that we have and the difficult and challenging history that they've had, I think it certainly bodes well that our premier is there with the prime minister and other dignitaries," said Samson.

"Any chance there is to be able to advance Nova Scotia's agenda, I think is time well spent."